Don’t say just cheesesteak

Philadelphia’s food scene is a fiesta of big flavours and small neighbourhoods with a cool UNESCO twist
Lamb barbacoa tacos
Lamb barbacoa tacos

Insta cuisine is eccentric at best and downright ridiculous at its worst. The ‘Everything is Cake’ trend is a beguiling social media trick of fantasy and reality: imagine you’re looking at a flower pot packed with mud and blooms in the middle. A hand with a knife appears. Flower pot murder isn’t even Agatha Christie’s domain. It is epicurean legerdemain: the knife plunges into its clay victim which isn’t clay, mind you. It is chocolate. And the metaphorical blood is coffee mousse, coffee ganache, espresso chocolate cake, buttercream and vanilla ice-cream.

Lamb barbacoa tacos
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This dessert is the pride of 1906, a fine dining restaurant in the sprawling Longwood Gardens, Brandywine Creek Valley just outside of Philadelphia. The main course has roasted beets, braised savoy cabbage and a juicy crab omelette. Philly, best known for its cheesesteak—a power-packed sandwich of beef, provolone and onions—usually is not a star in the gourmet galaxy of the East Coast, especially with New York as a close neighbour. But if you go beyond this epic sandwich, many surprises are guaranteed.

Shock and Awe: Take Vedge, for instance. The restaurant highlights local vegetables. Rutabaga (a root vegetable) becomes a fondue served with pretzels; chioggia (a garden beet) is salt-roasted and served with an arepa pancake and a smidge of black garlic; the cauliflower gets a ‘Chicken 65’ upgrade with a tangy spicy sauce; carrot is cooked rillette style (similar to a confit) and placed on pumpernickel toast; and rhubarb becomes a cheesecake with a sweet pea ice-cream.

Elsewhere, the Garden Restaurant at the Barnes, which looks out onto its blooming namesake, serves a comforting seasonal sweet corn and pumpkin squash soup; roast chicken paired with spring vegetables, herbs and horseradish beurré blanc; and a grilled salmon with puy lentils and sweet pea.

The flower pot dessert at 1906
The flower pot dessert at 1906

Perhaps the most picturesque restaurant for a sundowner is SkyHigh at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, where glass walls, mirrors and small waterfalls create a sensory dining space. The menu showcases Chef Jean-Georges’ small plates that are big on flavour—a kale salad with mint and parmesan, crisp calamari with a piquant salsa verde, a stellar fried chicken with habanero butter, and seared salmon with mashed potato.

Another rooftop space is El Techo, a bar and taqueria— a Mexican eatery which is devoted to tacos—doing ceviche with cucumber, mixed citrus, and coconut; crispy cauliflower tacos with salsa; and the freshest, crispest nachos served with an assortment of dips. For food hobos, cebiche aka sebiche is a citrusy (shell)fish dish which has UNESCO rooting for it as a part of Peruvian traditional cuisine.

Small is Beautiful: Philly’s small neighbourhoods is where wonders live. The countryside of Philadelphia has little stores where passionate foodies showcase their wares. At Éclat in West Chester, chef/owner Christopher Curtin—often called Philly’s Willy Wonka—will feed you his artisanal chocolate dreams such as earthy and bright porcini paired with thyme, and a lavender-infused bar. Nearby, at Taste of Olive, the walls are lined with stainless steel drums from which you can taste unique flavours of balsamic vinegars and olive oils. Look out for the caramel-like aged balsamic vinegar.

Food at SkyHigh, Garden Restaurant, Isgro
Food at SkyHigh, Garden Restaurant, Isgro

Kennett Square is a small, picturesque borough in Chester County, which accounts for over 60 per cent of the mushrooms grown in America, earning it the title of Mushroom Capital of the World. Predictably, mushrooms reign here. La Michoacana is a small shop at the end of the buzzing East State Street, coloured bright pink, and home to ice-cream such as sweet corn, avocado, guava and cheese, cookie dough, and of course, mushroom. The mushroom popsicle is vanilla at first but the chunks of the fungi soon announce themselves and make their mark. It tastes even better with a dusting of the homemade spice mix.

Lamb barbacoa tacos
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In South Philly, you can explore the vibrant neighbourhoods in the region with a multicultural food tour with Chef Jacquie Kelly. Highlights include a stop at Chef Cristina Martinez’s South Philly Barbacoa. Her signature is the lamb barbacoa tacos, with an assortment of agua frescas in flavours like prickly pear, horchata and guava. The food tour ends at Isgro, a Philadelphia institution known for its cannoli, which is a secret family recipe that involves homemade wine, and an antique marble slab. It’s a delicious crunchy, creamy sweet treat that’s been satiating people since 1904.

In Philly, history isn’t just found at the Liberty Bell, or at Independence Hall, but in its food fiesta too.

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